Giving Feedback to Writers in Online Classes

“We know what we mean, and we know the tone that we intend to convey. Often, however, students are bewildered by our comments, and they sometimes read into them a tone and a meaning entirely different from our intentions.” (John Bean, p. 318)

Providing feedback to students is one of the most interpersonal activities in any writing course, online or face-to- face, and therefore is one of the most impactful ways to develop presence in your course and build relationships with your students.

In the online space, the general principles and best practices for responding to student writing still apply, i.e., 

  • match your feedback to the stage of writing
  • keep comments to a minimum; don’t over comment
  • focus comments  on your assignment goals and values
  • don’t mark all surface errors
  • provide positive as well as constructive feedback

Additionally, since you will mostly communicate textually in the online space, responding practices related to the PARS principles of Personal, Accessible, Responsive, and Strategic (Borgman & McArdle, 2019) take on increased significance to feedback in online courses. Below we offer some best practices that are particularly important when teaching online.

  • Be strategic about your time as you develop your course and writing assignments. You’ll be communicating through writing more often -- in discussion boards, emails, short assignments -- so make deadlines and response times realistic. And remember that you don’t have to respond to everything or even read everything! 
    • For low-stakes assignments, peers can respond to each other (see many such examples provided by Shelley Rodrigo in this presentation on creating online assignments.)
    • Respond to the whole class about a common issue in an email, Canvas announcement, handout, or quick video. 
    • Encourage students to use the Howe Writing Center at any stage of writing.
  • Engage students in a dialogue to build relationships. Begin the dialogue by asking students to include a Dear Reader note or Writer’s Memo with each draft they submit to you (Sommers 12) or what Hewett calls an agenda (2010, p. 51). 
    • Find out how the student feels about their paper, what they want feedback on, and other questions that interest you about their learning and their writing. Students can include this as the first page of their document. Just be sure that you address their points in your feedback to close the circle. 
    • Alternatively, you can ask students to make those points by inserting comments in their Word or Google doc which you can then respond to. 
    • If you conference synchronously with students, you can discuss the student’s agenda at the beginning of the  session. 
    • See Sommers, Hewett’s The Online Writing Conference, and our “Helping Writers Identify Goals for Peer Response” for Dear Reader letter examples and prompt ideas.
  • Use names. Using someone’s name recognizes them as a person and creates rapport. 
    • Build connections by addressing students by name in your opening or ending comment.  
    • Likewise, sign your name at the end. Make yourself human and present.
  • Keep an encouraging, respectful tone. The purpose of commenting is to teach the student something, encourage them to revise, and to instill confidence so they are more likely to revise. 
    • Without the normal social cues of face-to-face interaction, a critical or sarcastic tone in written comments can create defensiveness rather than learning and cause students to retreat rather than engage. For example, saying in person “Tell me the ‘So What’ of your argument” comes across quite differently when written as “So what?” in the margin. 
    • Avoid commenting when you’re tired. Stop if you’re feeling frustrated.
    • Use “I” statements for most feedback. For example, “I’m having trouble following this line of reasoning,” or “This is unclear because,” not “You’ve lost me here”. 
    • Avoid “you” except for praise. For example, “Your thesis is clear.”  
  • Convey interest. In the student and in the writing. 
    • Use first person and write genuinely about how you responded to the content. 
    • Ask open-ended probing questions that elicit deeper thinking (these questions usually start with how or the 5 Ws).
  • Be concise, explicit, and direct. Since most correspondence in an online course is textual and there’s no real-time interaction to clear up confusion, clarity becomes critical for all your communications. Beth Hewett’s research shows that students often misinterpret indirect feedback as a suggestion and fail to take corrective action. (2010, p. 106). She recommends using direct language to inform, direct, or elicit information (2010, p. 172).
    • For example, an instructor wants a student to “Add more details to make the description vivid,” but in an attempt to soften the direct command, they write, “You might consider adding additional details to make this more vivid.” 
    • If you are truly letting the student decide, make your suggestion clear (e.g., I suggest that you add more details…”  “You could add...”.) 
  • Respond with reason. In order to be especially clear and to provide a lesson in your response, use Hewett’s What, Why, How, Do model (2015).
    • Describe what the issue is
    • Explain why it is an issue (quite often it’s how or why you responded to it)
    • Explain how the student can address it
    • Encourage the student to do something with your feedback (apply to the rest of the paper, practice in one paragraph, revise, etc.)
  • Be responsive to student needs. Remember that responding is also teaching, and learning is doing!  
    • Determine what will help the student most to improve, and provide one mini lesson within the feedback that also asks the student to practice with their own writing. 
    • Or provide  a lesson for the entire class that you can present in text, slides, or a short video.
    • Over time, you can build up a repository of responses and mini lessons to save time when responding.

Sources and Further Reading

Borgman, Jessie and Casey McArdle. Personal, Accessible, Responsive, and Strategic: resources and strategies for online writing instructors. Fort Collins: The WAC Clearinghouse, 2019.

Hewett, Beth L. The Online Writing Conference: A guide for teachers and tutors. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015.

Hewett, Beth L. and Kevin Eric DePew, Eds.. Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction. Fort Collins: The WAC Clearinghouse, 2015.

Shapiro, Mike. “How to Talk to a Student Who Isn’t There: Ineffective and effective practices for commenting on student writing.” Another Word: from the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin. 2014. 

Sommers, Nancy. Responding to Student Writers. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. (pdf available on HCWE Canvas Site for Faculty)

The Online Writing Instruction Community. More information about the PARS model, sample syllabi and assignments, and many other resources.

Warnock, Scott. Teaching Writing Online: How & Why. Urbana: NCTE, 2009.